The statement in the title may be bold, but let’s look at some statistics. A recent Booking.com study found something very peculiar – 87% of travellers want to travel sustainably, but 52% say they struggle to find sustainable travel options. Why is that? Surely many hotels have jumped on the sustainability trend by now.
We think the problem lies elsewhere: ineffective PR and comms.
The issue: hotel sustainability is not living up to its potential
In the hotel industry, sustainability comms is often perceived as a checkbox exercise. Hotel chains are talking about measuring their energy, water and waste, and their general procedures to safeguard the environment.
The problem is that for quite some time now, this is a sure way to make journalists yawn. Nothing from what we’ve described is going to turn into an interesting story that would grab headlines and Instagram feeds. This sustainability PR strategy is already business as usual for most industries in the 2020s and guarantees nothing more than survival in today’s cancel culture of cynical scrutiny and social media shaming.
To make a compelling value proposition for sustainable tourism you must do more. Hotel chains often overlook the unique potential they have in transforming sustainability into a compelling, guest-centric narrative. Unlike other industries where sustainability might focus on operational changes like using ethically sourced products or achieving net-zero emissions, hotels have the opportunity to directly influence guest experiences and perceptions through their sustainability efforts.
The missed opportunity: partnerships with destination brands
Applying white space mapping to our analysis of 1,698 English-language articles published in the last year, we found a curious gap in the sustainable tourism debate. While joint PR campaigns between destination brands and travel industry players are a staple in the general tourism sector, and much discussed in travel marketing literature, there’s a notable scarcity of such collaborations specifically targeting sustainability initiatives.
This discrepancy is intriguing, as it highlights a missed opportunity for both hospitality chains and destination brands to amplify their sustainability message.
Collaborative campaigns, combining the resources and reach of both tourist boards and industry players, could significantly enhance the visibility and impact of sustainability efforts. Here are a couple of ideas on how hotels can do this, according to our analysis:
1. Get local: align your strategy with a destination brand
It’s not enough for hotel chains to simply promote their sustainability credentials; they must immerse themselves in the local context, especially in regions with unique environmental treasures. By partnering with local tourist boards and aligning with a country’s specific sustainable tourism goals, hotels can make their sustainability initiatives more relevant, newsworthy, and effective.
Take Accor‘s strategic partnership with Ecotourism Australia as a prime example – a move that helped position the French hotel chain as the most influential organisation in the sustainable tourism debate:
Accor’s engagement with Ecotourism Australia was particularly significant for ecotourism in regions like North Queensland, home to the iconic Great Barrier Reef, where the partnership underlined efforts in biodiversity restoration, contributing to the preservation of one of the world’s most remarkable natural wonders.
This not only elevated Accor‘s reputation but also enhanced Australia‘s sustainable tourism narrative, making it a compelling case for media attention and public interest.
2. Get cultural: consider community and heritage
While ecotourism enjoys a prominent place in media narratives, other critical aspects of sustainable tourism often remain underrepresented, as evident by our thematic analysis:
A more newsworthy approach would involve other aspects of sustainable tourism, like community-led initiatives to bolster local economies, preserve cultural heritage, and foster authentic interactions between tourists and host communities. By partnering with tourist boards, hotel chains can amplify these efforts and align their initiatives with the specific sustainable tourism goals of the countries they operate in.
A notable example of how such moves can gain media traction was Airbnb‘s partnership with India’s Ministry of Tourism, with Airbnb launching a ‘Soul of India’ microsite to feature heritage properties and offer support to hosts in untapped tourist areas.
Another example were Iberostar‘s efforts in Mexico, where the company focused on the conservation of over 50 cenotes in the Caribbean community of Chemuyil, Quintana Roo, and in the Dominican Republic, where it hosted immersive tourism experiences with local communities, such as learning about cocoa processing and local wood carving techniques.
3. Get there first: embrace the LGBTQ+ market
Similar to heritage and culture, diversity and inclusion is a crucial aspect of sustainable tourism that have remained largely unaddressed by many hotel brands, presenting a significant opportunity for differentiation.
More importantly, this topic was extensively discussed by the most influential spokespeople in the debate. For instance, the most prominent individual, Julia Simpson, President & CEO of the World Travel and Tourism Council, was widely cited as highlighting the importance of diversity and inclusion, saying that tourism is before anything else an industry about people.
One aspect of the diversity and inclusion debate is especially pertinent for hotel brands: the LGBTQ+ travel market, which has experienced a robust revival post-Covid.
Destination brands have already started actively engaging in campaigns to attract LGBTQ+ travellers. Take for instance Florida’s “Everyone Under the Sun” campaign, or, more interestingly, Saudi Arabia‘s new efforts to position itself as an LGBTQ+ friendly destination despite its conservative stance on same-sex sexual activity. Such a significant shift in policy underscores the growing recognition of the importance and profitability of the LGBTQ+ travel market.
Given that LGBTQ+ travellers tend to travel more and have a substantial impact on the destinations they visit, hotel chains have an opportunity to distinguish themselves by partnering up with emerging LGBTQ+ destinations, which can not only enhance their reputation for sustainability but also contribute to the broader goal of responsible tourism.